Jozy Altidore scores. And there’s booing. Altidore puts his hand to his ear — full wrestling heel mode. And there’s more booing. And ok, yep, someone just threw a cup. And wow, Sebastian Giovinco just took a drink from the cup. The booing is so loud. And it has been happening the whole game. And it isn’t going to stop.
Almost two years ago to the day, Toronto FC came to Atlanta United for the final game of the 2017 season. They needed a win to break the MLS regular-season points record. Atlanta needed a win to clinch a first-round bye. And Mercedes-Benz Stadium welcomed an MLS-record 71,874 fans.
Those fans had strong opinions.
Just 12 days removed from the US men's national team crashing out of World Cup qualifying with a 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago, Atlanta fans were doomsday-prepper levels of prepared to express their disapproval of Altidore and Michael Bradley’s contribution to the disaster. Or at least their existence within it. It’s unclear how much Atlanta fans actually blamed the pair specifically. No matter what though…
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Altidore and Bradley come out for warmups: BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO
Altidore and Bradley are announced in the starting lineup: BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO
Altidore and Bradley are just kind of standing there waiting: BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO
People made signs. Like, spent actual money on signs. The largest and most noticeable of those being a large banner stretching across the front of an entire section reading “The Biggest Losers” accompanied by pictures of Altidore and Bradley.
“The Biggest Losers” banner with a photo of Bradley and Altidore. Amazing. pic.twitter.com/sB0c29Rccs— Haris Kruskic (@HKruskic) October 22, 2017
At one point, Julian Gressel shouldered Altidore to the ground in front of this sign and the crowd cheered it like a goal.
There was even a chant. Slowly but surely you could hear it build around the stadium.
“It’s all your fault! It’s all your fault!”
Altidore said after the game none of it bothered him much.
“I’ve been dealing with this since I was young. It is what it is. It’s not going away any time soon.”
I’m unsure exactly where someone gets booed by 70,000 people in their youth, but we’re all living our own unique lives I guess.
Greg Vanney approached things more directly.
“I’m sure from Jozy’s perspective, he either blocked it out or it motivated him, one of the two. A motivated Jozy is a nightmare for any defender,” he said. “Fans are allowed to be fans. I think it is nonsense if they truly believe that, but at the end of the day, they are here to ridicule and heckle and do everything that they can to the opposition to try and throw us off.”
To their complete credit, Altidore and Bradley played very well that day. The only real acknowledgment of the boos came in the form of a goal and a hand to the ear straight out of Hulk Hogan’s playbook. It probably helps ease any potential pain when you send the home team to their eventual first-round demise while sealing another record on the way to your first MLS Cup. Toronto clearly ended the day and the season with the final laugh.
But also, credit to Atlanta: It was pretty funny.
Things reached a level of petty you rarely get to see in MLS. Or in any sport, honestly. Although — you’ll never believe this — an Atlanta fan on Twitter compared it to the atmosphere of an SEC football game. I do think that a decent majority of folks booing knew exactly why they were doing it, but my hunch is that the rest joined in simply because one of the great joys in sport is unifying against a “villain” and booing them to hell and back.
Essentially what you have in this case is a meme happening in real time. Everyone can easily recognize what is happening and exactly how to join in on the joke. Don’t get those ideas too mixed up though. Real vitriol existed in Atlanta that day.
“Not only the fact that they were key players that played in the loss but also because of how complacent they seemed as players and as a team in the larger picture,” Atlanta fan Noah Blalock said. “They had been mainstays for so long and honestly just seemed like they didn’t have the heart to beat little ole Trinidad and Tobago which was pretty infuriating if I’m being honest.”
Added fellow Atlanta fan James Bryan: “I can appreciate Bradley’s career with the national team. He has been a part of several pretty special moments. But I think he also needed to know just how much that failure affected fans. My booing, at least, was less of a personal criticism of Bradley, but more of just a way to take out all my frustration surrounding the national team.”
In large part, the fans I spoke to who were at the game felt justified in their booing thanks to a combination of Bradley and Altidore’s perceived “lack of effort” and general anger with the USMNT. Only a few viewed that anger as misplaced.
“I think their national team careers have been way more positive than negative,” Atlanta fan Chris Kilroy said. “Nagbe was on the pitch in Couva and we don’t saddle him with that as being the singular failing moment of his life. Guzan was on the bench. We don’t hold it against him.”
The boos returned in Toronto’s 2018 visit to Atlanta but had decidedly less of an edge. A few could be heard when the pair returned to Mercedes-Benz Stadium this May. But two years and an Atlanta MLS Cup win of their own dampened the noise even further.
Now Toronto return to Atlanta on Wednesday in a game with far higher stakes than 2017. Opinion seems to be mixed on whether Altidore, if he recovers from a quad injury in time, and Bradley will receive a similar reception in the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Final. One fan compared booing them now to “scolding a puppy two years after it did something wrong.” Some said they had gotten it all out of their system and appreciated what the two had accomplished. And others said they’d been practicing their technique since Wednesday.
Who knows. Maybe this article will be like that scene in The Matrix where Keanu only accidentally breaks the vase because he’s told to not worry about the vase. Maybe we’re creating a scenario where the bit is revitalized simply by acknowledging its existence. I imagine though that most fans have gotten all their frustration out on Altidore and Bradley at this point. And it’s not like they’re going to find someone new to throw their anger towa—